|Posted by christinkeck on June 28, 2013 at 6:30 PM|
I first became aware of race and prejudice when I was having my 9th birthday party. I was born in 1951, grew up in a lower-class neighborhood in Akron, Ohio, in a house at the end of a short street. My parents lived there because (a) my father’s family lived in two houses on the same street, and (b) they could actually afford it—the rent was a whopping $28 a month. Yes, you read that right—TWENTY-EIGHT dollars a month. Even in the 50’s that was low. But they’d gotten a “deal” for the place—which was a two-story frame house, very small, with only two real bedrooms—one downstairs by the kitchen and the entire upper story—which was really just one big room. The bathroom was an afterthought in that large upper room—carved into a corner of the large space and oddly shaped. There was a half-wall screening a smaller area away from the larger room. Apparently it had been a closet or dressing area at one time—or maybe just a storage area. Until I was five, the big main room was my bedroom, and the small room was used for storage. Then my brother came along, and that room became a nursery; then my other brother came along a year and half later, and the two boys shared the big space, and my bed and dressers were moved into the small space—and a door was installed. I had a place to myself finally—with slanted ceilings and my own window which looked out over the front porch roof and the silver maple in the front yard. The room was exactly as long as my twin bed, which went from wall to wall. The window was at the foot of my bed. There was no floor space, but it was private and it was mine.
My birthday is in the summer, and most summers when we had a party, it would be a cookout or fish fry in the back yard. Everyone I knew would come—family, neighbors, friends, adults and kids alike. We might make dinner, or just have ice cream and cake. Most of the time it was a fun event. But the year I learned about prejudice, it was a little different.
We had been through a pretty rough year with me, academically speaking. Fourth grade was awful. I had a teacher who hated me for reasons I still will never understand completely; her name was Mrs. Sartor, and she didn’t like children who had been “skipped” a grade in school, which I was. I was only 8 in fourth grade—a year younger than everyone else. She singled me out for harassment and punishment all year long, culminating in my mother slapping her across the face in the principal’s office toward the end of the year, and Mrs. Sartor’s dismissal due to “nerves” shortly thereafter. She had made me fearful of math and learning for the first time in my life—and I was unhappy in school . Mrs. Sartor had also managed to isolate me from the other kids in my class—they made fun of me just to get on her good side.
One of my friends in class was a girl named Jewel. She sat next to me when we were placed in the back of the room—later, when Mrs. Sartor moved me to the front so she could “keep an eye on me”, Jewel was left alone in the last seat on the row, and the seat next to her, which had been mine, was vacant. I never questioned this seating arrangement at all—it never occurred to me that there was anything more than randomness about it. I did not recognize it for “segregation”, but it was. I was hated because I had skipped a grade—Jewel was hated because she was black.
She was the only African-American in our class that year. Usually we had more than one—sometimes three or four. But generally, even though we were all from the same district in Akron, which was heavily ethnic and mixed, we were not of a lot of different races—the “mixed” characteristics of our North Hill area was confined to mixed European ethnicities, not mixed races. We didn’t have Asians, Hispanics or Latinos—we didn’t have many blacks or browns. We had Germans, Poles, Czechs, Russians, Italians, Irish, and variations on the numerous sects and divisions of Christianity; it felt a lot like a mixed bag to me, but it wasn’t a lot of racial diversity. I was not used to differences in culture, societal norms or behavior for the most part, and didn’t even think about it. My dad was Italian. My mom was Scots-Irish. Neither one of these were touted as “right” or “wrong” to be. My dad’s people were Catholics, my mom’s were Southern protestants. My mom broke away from both to raise us as Episcopal, after a long search for just the right church to go to. We fit in.
Jewel and I had become friends at recess. She was pretty, quiet and shy. She was smart, like me, but she never had much of a presence in class—mostly she sat quietly in the back of the room. She got good grades, wore nice dresses and shoes, and her hair was braided into many braids, which I found fascinating. She let me take one apart one day—and I marveled at how she didn’t have to use rubber bands to keep the braid from unraveling. I loved her hair and wanted mine to be like that. I was friends with only a few other people that year—in particular one boy I had a massive crush on, who didn’t seem to care much about me, but whom I would follow around on the playground for days trying to get a response, positive or negative—his name was Gail.
My ninth birthday was to be a “Hobo Party” this year—the guests were supposed to dress up like hoboes, bring presents wrapped in newspaper, and my mother had devised a few games involving sticks and bandannas. We had beans and hot dogs to eat, and my dad had made us a “campfire”. The usual crowd of family and neighbors was invited, and my mom, as a palliative for the bad school year I’d had, encouraged me to invite friends from class. She was trying hard to erase the memory of the bad fourth grade year, trying to put as good a face on it as possible for me. But the truth was, Mrs. Sartor had been a dictator and a deeply troubled woman, and she’d turned most of the class against me except for Gail and Jewel. So they were the only two I invited.
And Gail came! I was thrilled beyond words. He stepped out of his parents’ car wearing old tattered and fringed pants, a plaid shirt, and carrying his bandanna on a stick, his face smudged with coal dust. His present to me? A can of beans! It was delightful and quirky. I was in high spirits in the back yard, playing the egg-on-a-spoon race, passing a balloon from neck to neck—lots of fun things waiting for the hot dogs to get speared with sticks so we could hold them over the fire. Things were going really well and I had already received several nice presents—wrapped in layers of the funny papers or brown paper bags. Then another car pulled up to the house in front, and everything changed.
It was Jewel. She had come! Now I really was over the moon. Both of my good friends had shown up—and the party was fun—and it was turning out to be a perfect day after all! Then it happened. My mother came to see who had just pulled up and watched as Jewel stepped out of the nice car, present under her arm, and gave me a hug. She wasn’t dressed like a hobo, but wore a pretty party dress and patent leather shoes. She greeted my mother with a polite hello and walked back to join the party.
My mother said nothing in return—did not return the hello, or tell Jewel’s mother what time to pick her up. Instead, she stood there with a sort of strange expression on her face, frozen and stilted. I was too pleased to wonder about it, and was just about to follow Jewel to the back yard, when my mother grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the front porch. Now her expression was a little different. It was that face a parent makes when they are “concerned.”
“Who is that?” she asked me.
“It’s Jewel—I invited her. She’s my friend,” I told her.
“Is she in your class?”
“Um, well…” my mother’s voice was low and oddly timbred. I felt a small shiver of fear run through me. “Um,” she said again. Then she asked me the question that will stick with me forever and which forever changed my outlook on life:
“Don’t you think,” my mother said carefully, “that she would be more, um, comfortable—with her own kind?”
I was stunned. Her own kind? What did that mean? I looked at my mother’s face, which was now openly upset. Her own kind?
“But she is with her own kind,” I told her, without hesitation; “We’re all in the same class!”
My mother shut down her expression at that moment. Her face became a stone wall. I could not read the hieroglyphs on it. She didn’t reply for a moment, then said quietly, “No—I meant—“ then stopped. “I think you know what I mean,” she finished.
But I didn’t know. Not immediately. Jewel was my friend, my classmate, one of the few in my fourth grade class who actually liked me and didn’t think I was some kind of freak. She had offered her friendship without reservation or expectation. And she was kind, and nice. I wanted to share my birthday with her as much as I wanted to share it with everyone else. So what was my mother referring to?
Then, suddenly, I knew. And from that moment on, things changed between my mother and me. I saw her expression become clear, heard the fear and the prejudice in her voice. I felt sick to my stomach, almost violently; and I backed away from her as she stood there by the porch steps, and I walked slowly to the back yard. Jewel was there, sitting alone on the picnic table bench. None of the other kids were playing with her or had invited her to join the games. No one was talking to her. I wanted to cry, to scream, to push the table over, to set the place on fire. Something. Anything. I wanted this knowledge to go away and I wanted things to be like they were before I knew this horrible thing. I sat down on the picnic table bench next to Jewel and I tried to smile at her. But it didn’t matter what gestures I could manage--inside I was smashed to pieces. The whole party was ruined.
I don’t remember the rest of the party; it passed in a fog of falsity, a haze of hypocrisy. I thanked people for their gifts, we ate hot dogs and toasted marshmallows. The kids drifted home, Gail and Jewel were picked up in their parents’ cars at some point. The party plates and newspapers were picked up, the leftover cake stored in the fridge, the campfire extinguished. And I was changed.
I imagine it was something like the feeling Adam and Eve must have had when they ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil: once that happens, there is no returning to the joy, the innocence or the bliss. Pandora’s box all over again—but without the Hope. I would come to understand that later. Right now, all I felt was sick. A skin had been torn off of the world, and underneath were ugly, stinky maggots.
I never saw Jewel again. Either she was placed in a different class for fifth grade, or her family moved, or she went to a different school. She would never visit again, but now I had another visitor, one who would never leave: Bigotry.
In two years, it would be the reason we moved out of that inexpensive neighborhood into an even whiter, more middle-class home in the “country”. It was the reason my parents ran from the neighborhood I knew into a life that would eventually destroy their marriage and financial well-being. They would break themselves and the family trying to outrun black America, black equality, black “encroachment.” The diverse school system I would attend would become a mediocre, pale place, and in my entire high-school graduating class of over 100 students, we would have only ONE black person: a very light-skinned, red-haired, freckled kid named Alfred. The only reason we even knew he was black was because his younger brother was much darker and more “typically” African. But he, too, was treated differently than everyone else—not permitted to take a “white” girl to the prom or Homecoming. I imagine his high school life was somewhat lonely and isolating. But I don’t know--we were not friends. By the time Alfred came along, I was terrified of having black friends because of what my parents might say about them. There were no real opportunities to make any such friends, even so, but the fear remained.
And as I grew up and moved out into the world, I found many more examples of my parents’ bigotry all around: every time they would talk about their “old neighborhood” and how it had been “taken over” or was being taken over by black families. Every time a news story about the Civil Rights movement was aired—every time the papers would quote a speech by Martin Luther King or Medgar Evers—there would be comments about how our country was going to hell in a handbasket. My mother loved to relate the story of her “terrifying” experience with a drunken black man who mistakenly got into her car one day while parked in downtown Akron—how she was too “paralyzed” to have stopped him if he had decided to rape or murder her. She always include rape and murder in this story, even though the truth was far more innocuous—it was simply a mistake an inebriated man had made, for which he apologized profusely. I know he apologized because my aunt told the real version of the story to me one day—she’d actually been there. That was another “fact” my mother had sort of left out of the tale.
After I graduated from high school and went to work, I met more black people, and found that I had to make a conscious decision to not automatically categorize them. It annoyed me that every time I met someone of different race I thought these things. There was no putting them aside. Prejudice poisoned thought—I saw that—but you could not escape it. It was everywhere; in my father’s use of the N word—or in his substitution of the Italian pejorative when the N word was too harsh—in my mother’s evident fear of anything that was not Caucasian, in the spate of “black” jokes that were going around at the time. I had no black friends, and little opportunity to make any in the circles I frequented. But there was always that annoying and irritating pimple growing in the back of my otherwise clear brain.
When I got to college, things changed. By that time, (1969 and 1970) things had heated up politically to a boiling point. There were marches all over the country for Civil Rights, for Black Equality, for Black Power. I suddenly found that I had plenty of opportunity to reverse my upbringing. My roommate was black. I dated a black man I’d met while acting in a play—and he introduced me to Black Panthers on campus; I even attended a rally or two. I started to believe that I could actually counteract the racial prejudice I’d been raised in.
But I couldn’t. Because I was still afraid to confront my parents about it. For all the Suzy Whitebread activism I pretended to engage in, I could not go back to the source and root out the cancer. I was too afraid.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. At 18, I was still concerned how my parents viewed me—I still needed their approval. By the time I was 38, much had actually changed. Not merely were laws passed which somewhat leveled the playing field politically and socially, but I was a completely different person as well. I was no longer fearful of bigotry—I saw it for what it was at last—the holdover from an earlier time, from a sense of entitlement white people had not earned or for the most part, or even deserved to have. And I now had my own children—and I would be damned if I was going to raise them to feel that separation, that isolation, that small-mindedness. I had finally learned to deal with it.
Sometime around 1990, my mother fell seriously ill. She had to be placed on dialysis for the years of self-abuse in mistreating her Type II diabetes. She was already on disability and lived in a subsidized housing apartment. Unable to work, unable to afford her medications, she had taken a job as a babysitter for a wealthy family with three small, ill-behaved children. The job was killing her, but she was stubbornly clinging to it despite its obvious drawbacks. When she had to have the dialysis shunt placed in her arm, she became depressed and whiny, and even harder to handle than she had been; and a lot less cooperative. It was like dealing with a sick toddler at times. I had issues of my own, and worked full time and couldn’t monitor everything that happened, but my uncle and I tried to help, though it wore on our patience.
Her first dialysis appointment had to be done at a specific time and place—and the appointment was set in stone. She could not change it, amend it or excuse it. If she missed it, she would have to be hospitalized. But miss it she did. It took my uncle and I several hours to track her down—she was babysitting for those three kids, and they had the flu. This was specifically forbidden for her to do—she was not supposed to expose herself to any viral infections. My uncle had to pick her up and watch the kids himself while she got taken to the appointment, four hours later than she was supposed to have been there. She was very fortunate they made an exception for her this time—but it would be the last one. If she missed another appointment, there would be no life-saving dialysis without being hospitalized.
My mother arrived at the center in a bad mood, outwardly combative and aggressive. She lit into the receptionist, and the nurse. She refused to comply with instructions. She had to be sedated in order to have the procedure. And she was warned: do this again, and she wouldn’t be treated at all. By the time she got home that evening, she was royally PISSED.
I called her after work to find out how it had gone. (I had not yet heard about the scene she caused at the center. My uncle would fill me in later.) When I spoke, she was still spouting invective about the whole arrangement, letting me know how inefficient and inconvenient it all was—and then she said the thing that literally made a sound in my spirit like nails on a blackboard—like the screech of air brakes just before the truck hits your car from behind:
“…and the only reason she was telling me all this,” my mother said of the receptionist who was trying to get her set up for her regular appointments and having a difficult time because my mother refused to cooperate, “…was because she was BLACK.”
The world stopped again—and I went back in time. I was standing again in front of a stone-faced woman at my ninth birthday party trying to understand what she meant by “her own kind” and why it made me feel bad. Why it didn’t seem quite right. Why I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach.
This time, though—I knew. And I refused to accept it.
“Mom—stop. That’s enough. I don’t want to hear another single word from you about being mistreated. There is no way you’re going to convince me that the ONLY reason someone was rude to you is because you’re white and they’re black. I don’t believe that for a second.”
“Oh, you don’t? I’m not surprised. You were always a [N-word]-lover.”
I tried to restrain myself from jumping through the telephone receiver to strangle this woman. I’d had enough. This was my breaking point.
“That’s it, mom—I won’t listen to this bullshit. You either apologize for that remark and for the other ones you made, or I’m going to hang up and not speak to you again until you do. That’s your choice. And I’m going to tell you one more thing—if you ever—EVER—so much as use that word around either one of my children, you’ll never see them again either. Got it? Apologize—or I’m hanging up this phone. “
The stream of invective I could hear before putting the receiver down was legendary. No apology was ever going to come out of this woman’s mouth. I knew that. And I had to make a choice. So I hung up.
We didn’t speak for four months. She didn’t call, she didn’t even attempt to apologize to me, and she never, as far as I knew, tried to make amends with the dialysis center either. My uncle shuttled her to her first few appointments until she got a medical service ride, and she quit the babysitting job finally, but she didn’t make a single attempt to get in touch with me, or my kids. For four months.
When she finally called, it was to talk to my youngest son invite him to come spend the night. She was stable now. And he was only 7—and missed his grandma. All of this was conveyed through him—not even asked directly of me. It made me seethe, but I didn’t want to prevent the kids from having a relationship with their grandmother, so I agreed to drop him off. He went, and when he came back it took all the restraint I had not to ask him if she had asked about me or tried to talk to him. But he seemed a little upset about something. When I went into his room to talk to him, I saw him hide something under his pillow quickly—and without saying anything, I turned it over to find my mother’s jewelry—an opal ring and a necklace—there. He had stolen it from her jewelry box.
I debated for almost a week about how to handle this. I knew why he had done it—he didn’t really have another way to express his dismay over her absence. But I didn’t want him to think stealing was an answer either, and I knew we’d have to have a confrontation, my mother and I. I had no idea how she’d handle it when I told her. But when I called, she sounded reasonable and calm. She didn’t bring up our fight. She agreed to see us both the following evening, and she also agreed that it might be a good idea to put our differences aside and begin talking again. I had some hope, finally.
But it didn’t work. When my son and I got there, everything went okay for about five minutes; he gave her back her jewelry, he apologized for taking it in the first place, and she was forgiving. Then all hell broke loose. Without warning or provocation, she lit into me, telling me I was mentally ill, that I had lied and been completely wrong about her and everything—and that I needed therapy. She screamed and yelled—scaring my son, terrifying me—and this went on for a good ten minutes before she stopped. I was too stunned to even respond. I burst into tears, gathered my child and left.
My mother and I were done. This was it for me—I knew that she was toxic—disturbed—and probably never going to change. Prejudice was the least of my worries with her—she had deeper issues and I was never going to be able to fix any of them. For my own mental health, I knew this would be the last time we spoke. And it was. She died four years later, and we never reconciled.
She died before I could let her know that I finally understood her illness—not the mental one which caused her bigotry—I will never understand that one—but the physical one that caused her combativeness and irritability and her reluctance to police her own health. I too became diabetic for a while, and I know now how hard the choices are and how difficult it is to be so constantly vigilant. I am no longer diabetic—but the experience taught me a great deal about why diabetics have a hard time. And I’ve forgiven her for her cruel and insensitive remarks about my mental health. I know that was just her way of lashing out to punish me for wanting to live my own life. I also know that my mother may have loved me, but she never really liked me, or who I was, and that those feelings had been around for a very long time before our estrangement. All in all, it was probably inevitable that we would stop talking to each other; still, it makes me regretful that I didn’t work harder to ignore our differences.
After all, differences were the whole problem.
TO BE CONTINUED…